The Pittsburgh Penguins did not get a chance to ease into the 2020-21 schedule. They are not only playing in what is arguably the toughest division in the league, but the first half of the season has been primarily loaded with games against all of the top contenders in the division. It is by far their toughest stretch of the season, and it continues this week with a three-game homestand against one of the teams — the Philadelphia Flyers — they are in direct competition with for one of the four playoff spots in the division.
Given how tight the standings are and how far we now are into the season, this three-game stretch could potentially have a big role in where each team ends up in the standings. Or at the very least, what the Penguins are going to need in the second half of the season.
The homestand got off a great start on Tuesday night with the Penguins getting a 5-2 win over the Flyers under less than ideal circumstances, playing the game without Sidney Crosby and assistant coach Todd Rierden as they were both placed on the league’s COVID list before the game. But thanks to a near-perfect night from the special teams, an outstanding effort from Tristan Jarry (a developing trend here lately), Kasperi Kapanen’s best game of the season, and some surprising contributions from the defense they were able to get a massive regulation win.
This stretch is so important because they are playing three straight four-point games against a Philadelphia team that entered the week ahead of them in the standings and still has two games in hand on them the rest of the way. An 0-3 stretch here would have been disastrous for the Penguins chances and could have significantly impacted their postseason chances. But Tuesday’s win was a good start for making up ground and now puts the Penguins in a position where if they can win just one of the next two games, they will have gotten through the most difficult part of their schedule in a relatively good spot despite some major injury issues and, at times, sub-par play in some key areas.
I have talked about the schedule a lot recently, but after these next two games against Philadelphia they have 18 of the following 24 games against teams that are currently below them in the standings — New York Rangers, New Jersey Devils, Buffalo Sabres. They will also have two games mixed in during that stretch against an Islanders team that is right there with them in the standings. That is going to be a big opportunity to really turn this season around. For that to happen, though, they need a big week here.
With that in mind, a few things to watch for this week.
— Let’s start with Sidney Crosby and the COVID situation. The fact that two people went on the list on Tuesday is a bit ominous. We still do not know if either Crosby or Todd Rierden test positive or if it was just a case of close contacts, but it is still a situation you have to monitor. It seems like every time a team has had multiple people go on at once this season it tends to lead to bigger problems in the short-term. We do not want to be looking back at this game in four days and asking “why was it played?” You have to assume that Crosby is going to also miss at least Thursday’s game as well, which means the Penguins are going to need more people to step up again.
— That means Evgeni Malkin, and I want to say there are some encouraging signs here with him.
Even though he only recorded a single assist on Tuesday, he was fairly noticeable and ended up playing more than 20 minutes to lead all Penguins forwards. To add to that, if you go back over his past three games the Penguins have really tilted the ice in his minutes. During that stretch the Penguins have attempted more than 62 percent of the total shot attempts with Malkin on the ice, dominated the expected goals and scoring chance numbers, and even outscored teams by a 2-1 margin.
— Speaking of stepping up, Jared McCann has made a nice impact since making his return three games ago. Along with scoring a huge goal in New York in his return to help the Penguins get a huge win there, he helped set up Cody Ceci’s highlight reel goal on Tuesday night against Philadelphia. In his three games since returning he also has dominant possession numbers, while the Penguins own a 4-0 goal edge at 5-on-5 with him on the ice. His return could not have come at a more perfect time with the injury to Jason Zucker.
— Special teams are also going to be a factor because the Flyers are one of the few teams in the league that have struggled in that area as much as the Penguins are. Pittsburgh definitely won that aspect of the game on Tuesday with a power play goal and a perfect night shorthanded.
— The Penguins are now 7-3-0 in their past 10 games, and if they can get two or three points over the next two games, preferably with another win in regulation, they will be sitting in a pretty good position for the second half stretch run.